Catharine Farrow is a professional geoscientist with more than 20 years of mining industry experience.
What drew you to the field of geology?
My Grandfather, a psychiatrist, had always been interested in rocks and geology. He gave me my first Estwing hammer when I was 11 and I was hooked. I liked chemistry as well and started university with a significant interest in both chemistry and geology, but the rocks always won.
You are currently CEO of a mining company, a role only few of us reach. Is it a goal you set out to achieve or did life take you there?
Not even maybe. The only goal I had initially was to see if I could successfully complete a PhD. After that, I thought about perhaps a position in a university or perhaps running a small consulting company. As interesting possibilities seemed to materialize, I decided to chase after some and here I am.
You need to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and should not wait or expect companies and institutions to map your future out for you.
What are the challenges you are faced with?
The biggest challenge is to build a mining company that doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional paths of mining companies. Our industry is in a capital markets crisis partly of our own doing. We need to reject the acceptance of outrageous capital costs, and a management structure that is outdated and certainly not structured in a way that youth, women or aboriginal people would be obviously attracted to our industry today.
What are you passionate about in your work?
Remember that all mining projects and operations are about the rocks and the people involved. The solutions to getting the job done are acted on by people on the rocks. If the people are not working well together, then the project will not advance as successfully as possible (if at all). If the rocks are not very well understood, then the best mining practices will not be implemented.
What would you love to do next?
Successfully build the Hope Bay project into an economically viable mining camp in western Nunavut.
You’ve had an amazing career, have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
There have been a number of mentors. Most of them probably had no idea they were my mentors. Most have been men, because I have primarily worked with men during my career. They have been university professors, colleagues, bosses, etc. The key similarities to all of them are integrity, technical or business acumen and a refusal to accept limitations from anyone, regardless of gender, race, and so forth. In addition, they have all put up with me, encouraged me when I was down, and allowed me to learn from my mistakes.
I’ve had formal mentors but for me the most powerful ones are the accidental mentor. Mentorship can come in many forms.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
I would rather not dwell on the challenges as there are many of different intensities going on all the time – and challenges are not necessarily a bad thing. Most are overcome by trying to assess all the available information as quickly as possible (including listening to as many views of the story as possible), work with the team to establish the level of impact, and ultimately make a decision on how to proceed. Once that happens, work hard and try to get it done. Above all, keep asking yourself what you learned. Learn and Adjust.
What was your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector?
Very positive, a great experience – a wonderful opportunity to make a difference – although I didn’t realize it until relatively recently.
In the last few years I’ve kind of woken up to the fact that I have the opportunity to be a role model to other women. I thank the women and men who have helped me realize it. I also thank some of the wonderful teams that I have been a part of. We don’t accomplish anything alone in this life.
Did you encounter much discrimination?
Interestingly, as a young professional, other than the issue of having to work in environments with no women’s dry and tasteless calendars, there really wasn’t that much that I noticed or encountered.
I would say there is much more in skilled labour and trades. It is very difficult for women as haul truck drivers for example. When I was in a COO role of a mining company, these were the women that would come to me and express how happy they were that there was a woman in a senior leadership role as that alone made it easier for them. My feeling is that these women and those who work in FIFO camps, need a great deal of support as the discrimination is locally intense.
I would also argue that there is discrimination at the highest level as demographics on mining company boards don’t represent shareholders, or the mining workforce, which is very diverse.
What is your view of women in mining and the global WIM network and the work they are trying to accomplish?
I am a strong believer that women need to be more attracted into the mining industry. The next frontier in mining is women in order to address both underrepresentation in the workforce and future labour shortages.
What still needs to be done?
The mining industry needs to be viewed more positively by women in order to attract more women to its ranks. Educating all parts of the workforce, men and women, about the current success stories and the possible solutions to the problem cannot stop. The recognition that this is not a ‘women only’ issue is key – it is an industry problem. There are a number of my male colleagues that recognize this as well.
The mining industry still maintains a ”command & control” management style which is no longer attractive to either gender (especially young people) or aboriginals. There is a paradigm shift of what leadership skills should be and change is slowly happening. This should help push the comfort level for women to get more involved.
Women in Mining have an ever-strengthening voice and need to use it while not forgetting to be a voice for women in trades and working in jobs outside of the professions or head/regional offices in the industry.
Do you sit on a board?
Yes, I am on the board of TMAC Resources Ltd, PDAC and the Ontario Branch of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.
Are you pro targets or pro quotas re Women on Boards?
I have never been one for quotas as the best possible candidates need to be filling positions regardless of gender. We need strong Boards to represent shareholders and to hire/fire CEOs.
However, my position on this continues to soften as I gain experience. Targets are important. Today’s Boards should be targeting representation that not only represents a diverse set of skills (as defined in standard Board skills matrix development), but that is more representative of the broad demographic that is the shareholder base.
Seriously targeting this difference will help Boards navigate through the sometimes difficult ‘soft’ issues that are inevitable when working through strategic planning. As mine industry labour continues to grow as a serious strategic and tactical challenge to companies, this requirement of Boards will become more and more important.
You have a family. How do you balance life and work?
A work/life balance doesn’t exist in my mind. At any rate, I have serious doubt that you can achieve complete balance. The travel and being away from home is demanding physically and emotionally, but you learn how to successfully manage.
I am fortunate to have a husband who is invested in the local community, is not into travelling, doesn’t want to follow me around and yet supports my life style. He formerly worked as a geologist so he understands me but is a school principal now. He and my son have chosen a home base and don’t wish to leave so I commute to my various work places. The encouragement and support I receive from them has allowed me to pursue my career and has been my rock. It is nice to come home to my family after being away.
It is all about the family and whether or not they can survive the demands of this kind of lifestyle. However, each person’s/families solutions are very personal and my family’s solution won’t work for everyone.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
Work hard, have fun, and expose yourself to luck.